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Seahorse Designs on Martha's Vineyard

A Short History of Wampum

Sea shells have been carved for thousands of years and have been found in a wide variety of shapes. The word "wampum" itself is believed to be from the Wampanoag word, wampumpeag, which means “white shell bead”. The white beads, which are known as “wampi” come from the inner spiral of  the channeled or knobbed whelk . The purple beads from the quahog shell are referred to as “saki”.  

The common shapes of the early quahog shellwork were disks, cones, squares , diamonds, balls and many animal forms.  Over time the tubular shape gained in popularity and demand increased due to trade with the Iriquois, who especially prized the beads.

The shells were collected in the summer months and the bead work was mostly done in the winter.  The early beads were quite large because the holes needed  for stringing them were made with stone tools.  It seems that the initial use for the beads and other shapes was for decorative purposes.  The round disk shape beads were strung on hemp and worn as bracelets and necklaces and the tube beads were often used as hair pipes.  Over time as the tools improved the beads became more uniform in shape and were made up into strings. Later they were strung on belts in symbolic patterns.  

The natives who lived near the coast learned that the inland peoples found these beads to be most desirable and would ultimately trade them for fur pelts and other clothing items.  The meaning of the symbols found on the belts was passed from tribe to tribe as they were traded further west and south.  Since there was no written language among the many tribes and their native tongues varied by area, the use of these symbols became important in communication and in the keeping of history. Many times a belt would be used to mark an event, or merely send a message from one chief to another. These belts were often taken apart and reused in a new belt.  The special belts used to record an important treaty or land agreement were kept in each tribe by a “Wampum Keeper” who would at the appropriate times display the belt and explain its meaning to the assembled members and especially to the next generation.

The use of the beads was well established by the 15th century and had traveled at least as far south as Cuba.  Christopher Columbus was given a string of wampum beads as a sign of goodwill when he arrived in the New World on his second voyage in May 1494.   The bead strings were later found to be in common use along the entire Atlantic coast.  When Europeans arrived there was some confusion as to the correct terminology and all the beads were then referred to as Wampum.

"The weaving of wampum belts is a sort of writing by means of belts of colored beads, in which the various designs of beads denoted different ideas according to a definitely accepted system, which could be read by anyone acquainted with wampum language, irrespective of what the spoken language is. Records and treaties are kept in this manner, and individuals could write letters to one another in this way."

This wampum belt is known as the 2nd William Penn belt and was presented to him by Lenape chiefs at the signing of the treaty of 1682.  The smaller figure on the left represents the white settlers and the larger figure represents the tribes of the Delaware. Their hands are joined as a sign of friendship and the diagonal lines symbolize their two cultures traveling independent paths to peace. 

First Nations scholars assert that wampum was never used among the tribes as money, but as a durable trade commodity; used by coastal peoples as a practical clothing accessory and by inland tribes in their symbolic belts. The Europeans realized the importance of wampum to native people and used it to barter with them, but since there was a real shortage of coinage in the new world Europeans used the wampum like money for a short time.  Wampum was legal tender in all 13 original Colonies. Generally the going rate was 6 white beads or 3 purple beads to the penny.   Dutch colonists mass-produced wampum in workshops. John Campbell established such a factory in Passaic, New Jersey, which manufactured wampum into the early 20th century .

The first mint on American soil was set up in Boston in 1652 and established a silver coin known as a “New England Shilling.”  By the early1700’s wampum was no longer used as currency.


Today's Wampum

Once again the quahog shell is being transformed into shapes reminiscent of those produced thousands of years ago. These days wampum generally refers to the purple part of the quahog shell regardless of the shape.  A broken piece washed by the tide and found on a beach can become a prized possession.  Local residents and visitors also value modern jewelry that has required many hours of labor:  the value of crafted wampum is in the difficulty involved in procuring the right shells and the hours of intensive work required to shape and refine them.


At Seahorse Designs, we make all the ancient traditional shapes as well as more contemporary forms.  Our shells are from the waters all around Martha’s Vineyard.  Some have a soft satin look and some are quite glossy.  The bright shiny finish on some of the pieces is all natural and is produced by a great deal of sanding with fine grit.  There is no lacquer or external finish applied to any of our pieces.  When you own a piece of Seahorse Designs wampum jewelry, you can be assured that your special piece was individually crafted from hand-selected shells.